Let's Talk Farm to Fork

Tinia Pina from Re-Nuble

August 18, 2021 Season 1 Episode 6
Let's Talk Farm to Fork
Tinia Pina from Re-Nuble
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode of "Let's Talk Farm to Fork", we're joined by Tinia Pina from Re-Nuble, who we will be talking to about how their organic cycling technology can transform unrecoverable vegetative food byproducts into sustainable technologies for soilless farming.

https://www.re-nuble.com/

Voiceover:

Welcome To let's talk farm to fork, the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people, making an impact in the fresh produce sector. We'll take a deep dive into what they do and find out how they're helping to reduce the amount of food lost or wasted along the farm to fork journey. But before we get started, did you know that according to the UN's food and agriculture organisation, around 45% of the world's fruits and vegetables go to waste each year? If you would like to learn more about how you can practically play your part in maximising fruit and vegetable supplies, whether you're a part of the industry or simply a consumer. Visit PostHarvest.Com and try out their free online course library today. Now time for your host Alex Mospanyuk.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Hi there. My name is Alex Mospanyuk and welcome to "Let's Talk Farm to Fork", the PostHarvest podcast that interviews people of interest across the food supply chain. Today on our show, I am joined by Tinia Pina from Re-Nuble, who I will be talking to you about how their innovative technology is working towards reducing the amount of annual food waste within the fresh produce industry. Re-Nuble's mission is to help global agricultural communities re-imagine localised food waste, and then reuse it in more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways. So with no further delays, let's get started. Tinia, hi! How are you today?

Tinia Pina:

I'm well, thanks for having me, Alex, I'm I'm doing well.

Alex Mospanyuk:

I'm glad to hear. Well, thanks for joining us and maybe for our audience who don't know you yet, uh, tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and maybe a fun fact about yourself that not many people know.

Tinia Pina:

Yeah I'd be happy to. Um, so my name is Tinia Pina, founder and CEO of Re-Nuble. We're headquartered here in New York city, but our facilities in upstate New York, and essentially what we do is we take unrecoverable produce waste from food manufacturers, distributors, and processors, that waste that normally can't, or is more difficult to get to a food bank and from a logistics to a farm, we take that and we turn it into a platform of sustainable technologies for the indoor soilless farming industry. And a little fun fact. I mean, only in the last week, um, I'm actually in the process of starting a farm out in Massachusetts. So I was able and fortunate to get a little bit of land and kind of go through that process myself, so really just, it's, it's, it's a very different experience, but I'm really excited by that.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Oh, my gosh. That is so cool. And what are you going to be growing?

Tinia Pina:

You know, I'm interested in in medicinal plants and we're trying to do it so where it can be a remotely managed greenhouse. I haven't seen too many models like that, but it's something that I've been tinkering with.

Alex Mospanyuk:

That is so exciting. And so how did she get involved in the industry? Were you always passionate about agriculture? What's your background? How'd you get here?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah. So, you know, I don't have a green thumb by technical training. I majored in business information technology at Virginia Tech and really what kind of started the story for Re-Nuble is, I was a prep SAT teacher at New York cares, which is just a pro bono volunteer program, and I was teaching this prep, sat class, Saturdays from eight to three in the morning. And I just found that a lot of the kids in that neighborhood were bringing a lot of highly processed and just less nutritionally dense food. And you could see immediately how well their attention levels were and what I felt would be a systemic kind of disadvantage from a productivity standpoint and nutrition really has an impact on productivity, memory, and just the ability to get farther in your life. If you think about how much people are spending on healthcare, it really comes down to what you're actually consuming. So I saw that as a direct observation, and then knowing back in 2011, that New York city was spending $77 million to export food waste. There was a unique two problems that if we could enable more farms to take this growing food waste in urban areas, then we could hopefully catalyze more organic growing, or at least less chemically laiden food, increase the supply, and as a result, reduce the price point so that more people can afford, organic or less chemically laiden grown food.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Oh, my gosh, my brain is exploding. I mean, I feel like you need to write your own book or start a podcast because that's such fascinating information. Just the story of how you found the issue and how you're solving it today. I mean, that's really incredible.

Tinia Pina:

Yeah, it's interesting. It's one of those things, Alex, where it's like, I strongly encourage everyone to just read as many different topics and about the news widely. And you could start connecting the dots as to where you see not as trends, but more of just like macro economic problems that resonate not only in the US and abroad and I think that's what helped me get me in here.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Wow. Amazing. Thank you for that. And so I've looked through your website, obviously I did a bit of research. I know you have a couple of products and you list a few different solutions, but do you mind telling me maybe about your most prominent one, what the purpose is and where in the food supply chain it actually operates?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah absolutely, that's a great question. So in the indoor farming industry, you know, think of vertical farms, greenhouses, indoor farms in a traditional, industrial commercial space. We are helping these farmers be able to take biological nutrients. So similar to soil, the ability to take things that have been sourced from our vegetative waste stream and used to grow as consistently and I would say with as much precision as synthetic mineral salts and the problem that we're resolving is, these farms wish to do so as their environmental stewards like you and myself, they want to use sustainable inputs that have the least amount of carbon emissions associated with their supply chain right? And mineral salts contribute to 3% of the global greenhouse gas emissions. So we essentially, the uniqueness and novelty here is one would liken our product to compost tea, but it's much more sophisticated and more nuanced than that. Essentially we take the produce waste that I mentioned and we enable it so that it's water-soluble and all that means is the plant is able to absorb the nutrients. In the same manner as it would with mineral salts or synthetic mineral salts, and that's really powerful because today, you know, people have tried to use liquified fish emulsion or bat guano, and because of how thick and incredibly, participle and smelly, these products are, it creates three big challenges for these farms. One is, it tends to lead to food safety borne pathogens because of the microbes and then the natural dynamics that are happening in these products, they want to compete for oxygen. Two. It tends to be cost prohibitive, so at a scale for a lot of these commercial farms, they're not cost competitive to mineral salts. And three, they're creating a cost and time factor for these farms to manage, and so they're not clean as essentially what the industry calls it. And so we're able to basically make, essentially this nutrients that we've uniquely processed and source from the vegetative waste, which is controlled and standardised. And I think we'll talk about that later, and and do it in such a way that, the product can be immediately used, it doesn't require additional supplementation of microbes, which are sometimes more expensive and may be adversarial to a product. And the last thing is that we can help these farms get organic certification, increase their profit margin, but also do it in such a way that they're growing more sustainably because there's been a lot of fluff in the industry about growing sustainably, but when you look at their inputs, when you look at the energy consumption, there's a number of factors that don't really quite match up to that.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yes, absolutely. And so what was the journey like with you and the team coming up with this idea? Did you come up with the idea and then get funding and then hire the team? Or what was that process like?

Tinia Pina:

Oh, no, it was much longer than that. I was considering getting my master's in sustainability at Columbia. Didn't pursue that because I was like, look, if I'm going to spend a hundred thousand dollars, I'd rather be on this business idea that I had. So I, I took the first, you know, part of funding Re-Nuble, which was early from my savings. And then from there I was hustling, I was doing dog walking, I was consulting, I was doing whatever it took to bridge the gap of what we needed to spend on market research and like designing everything from scratch, from the product to the manufacturing process. And then in 2015, We raised our first institutional money from SOS ventures and that was through the accelerator food X. So I always encourage people, you know, if you can go through accelerator, it certainly helps introduce that high risk capital as early as possible, which is hardest to raise. And then from there, we we're iterating on the product for a number of years doing a significant amount of R and D, and really the additional kind of investment capital came with more traction in the last two years. So, you know, COVID really changed things for us, it basically preventing us from getting a $500,000 bank loan, which we were right at the onset about to sign for, and then it got rescinded. And so, you know, we had to completely scratch a former product, redo our manufacturing process, and the equipment selection, and the last 18 months, you know, it was a good growing pain because it allowed us to come up with more than one product from the food waste that we process. Which is the, a way bigger product I described earlier and a grow media that's also made from that same waste stream and sterilised so that these farms can grow using a soilless grow media, all that means is growing plants in an alternative to soil in their systems.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Okay. That is so fascinating. And I mean, is there any competition or tech like yours out there and what sets you apart from them?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah I mean, that's a great question. You know, I think there are a number of let's say methods, right? So there are systems that are taking a biofilter and adding it to their reservoir so that the reservoir can be able to break down various types of waste and that is unique and certainly that has an application to it as well. But I think in terms of commercial farms and when you think of just like, hobbyists and, and people like you and I that want to be able to grow from home, they want something that's just, miniaturised and if not miniaturised as simple and plug and play as possible, and so the biofilter is great and there's people that have much more of a tinkerer mindset that use that approach but I think, when you want standardisation, you want consistency and you want the assurity of sterilisation, which is really important because there's so many variables that these farms have to work with. I just don't see how it is able to keep up there.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah, absolutely. And so, are there any current challenges that you have right now with your product? And do you have any strategies on how you're potentially gonna overcome them?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah you know, I wouldn't say current, before admittedly, we were trying to keep the product as much as solely derived from the waste stream that we source, right? And we do need to still expand on that research and it's taken us some time. Essentially, what we did achieve is we created biostimulants from our waste using our unique process, and that has a number of benefits where it adds nutritional enhancement. It's able to allow these plants to resist drought-like conditions, and the stress caused by that. But right now we do add some additional inputs or ingredients, we have OMRI certified Chilean nitrate, which is a non-synthetic source of nitrogen. And we do add are OMRI certified sea kelp. But our end goal is to really source all of our nutrients measured by nitrogen phosphorus, potassium from the waste stream alone, and we're just not there yet.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Wow. I mean, I'm just so excited to hear that you guys are working on this kind of solution and are there any surprises that you've found working in the FoodTech industry in relation to fruits and vegetables, and food waste and why?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah You know, when we first started off and this has been a number of years, at least six, seven years, and we were full-time on it as the last five years. And so, it was hard for us to have really honest conversations with the waste suppliers of the waste volume, characterization and I think now that there's a national push and everyone is a little bit more open to being vulnerable and at least doing the right thing, it's easier, but earlier it wasn't easiest, and so it didn't make finding the right food waste supplier for our raw material, at least from a partnership perspective, it was hard to vet. Because there was, you know, cards being held close to the chest that didn't make those conversations easy.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah. Right. And so continuing on from that, what is something that you think people seem to misunderstand? You mentioned people hold their cards close to their chest. And is that kind of more of a public perception that you're trying to change or?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, I think it's easier now. The public perception has been removed or that veil has been removed because I think everyone's trying to be good stewards along their supply chain or value chain. So what I mean specifically by that is, is that, you know, for example, we had a distributor, a food distributor that really like admitted he was pending $50,000 to send his food waste to a composting facility. And in most cases, those composting facilities aren't in close proximity. So, I think they recognise our value, we can be as close proximity to these operators as much as possible, and they see that it helps them differentiate their brand and their products. Especially as more of, I would say consumer products, food or other, even consumables are being measured from a carbon impact or emissions perspective. It's only going to increase and become more of a main topic as emissions are starting to be priced. So it's interesting where we all kind of like go from here.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Absolutely. And in the industry as a whole, personally, what do you think is one of the biggest pain points or blind spots?

Tinia Pina:

You know, I think the blind spot is, I'll go with how our food waste is starting to really become more of a investment focus right? Or a sector, and that's great, however, software, I would say limited or software only solutions is not going to help us close this gap and there is certainly a place for software and some that I'm excited by, but I think that is a realisation that more investors need to recognise, and I also think that more investors need to realise that even though it's fragmented, the solutions vary by region and the infrastructure for composting or just handling food waste varies by region. And I say that because I've had, a group of investors think that, "oh, this space is saturated" and maybe they're seeing it from the same, VC backed or investor funded software solutions that are going after the same data or analytics from a, a food waste prevention perspective. I still think there's a lot of different solutions that need to be created there, but there are too many solutions out there for this cause.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah, right. And so what do you think is the answer, is it bringing you more awareness towards the non-software solutions towards food waste? Or what measures do you think could help you move forward with this?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah I agree with you. I mean, I think ReFed, which focuses largely on waste and, and food waste is doing a great job. They've created an ecosystem and directory that allows A lot of solution providers at different stages of development, make themselves aware, at the same time, you're right. I think, as long as we still keep this conversation at the forefront, and there's a bit more collaboration perhaps along the supply chain for solution providers to attack the problem, then I think that's where there's more opportunity, is more collaboration because there's certainly a way to introduce more than one solution to the same perspective customer.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah, that's amazing. And so I know you mentioned that COVID, the Pandemic in general had an effect on potentially raising more money and things like that, but have there been any other type of effects on your day-to-day operations or?

Tinia Pina:

No, you know, I, I say this with the utmost gratitude. We have been in a favorable position, and that's because COVID gave light to the industry in terms of food production and how the supply chain has been disrupted by it and that impact. So with indoor farming, it is enabled more growth and more investment dollars for new farms to grow this way or this method. Because they're trying to reduce the dependence on either imported produce and or the dependence of supply chains of food that has been impacted by climate change, for example. So having distributed food production, food distribution models has received a lot of attention that a lot more investment. And what's interesting is that we're seeing mega farms that have been traditionally invested in conventional field agriculture, start to diversify by investing in the indoor farming space as well. So we've been very fortunate that it's kind of been in favour for us.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Well, that's really good to hear. And so when it comes to food loss, food waste and sustainability. Um, what is the biggest area that you are kind of curious about, and maybe what are some things that you're researching right now that excite you?

Tinia Pina:

Yeah. you know, for us, what's really interesting that we're spending more time on and, and try to measure both of the farms that use our product as well as internally is how the product, and I'm speaking specifically to our way we grow liquid hydroponic nutrients. That has an ability to allow the plants to be able to withstand higher heat temperatures and less water or water limitations, and so if we can show that effect, not only for indoor farms, which has a magnitude of positive impact on energy savings, because these farms spend 70 to 80% of their operational expenditures on cooling and managing your energy within the climate control, then that's a positive benefit. And then second, when you look at field agriculture, I'll give you an example. There's a farm that we've read about the other day in California because of the high drought, you know, his crops, aren't able to withstand it and because of how much more water is priced at this person has decided to leave his crops just to wilter on his land and sell his water access. So, we really need to kind of think of either a model where we're growing more indoors, this is just my personal belief and perhaps using regenerative agriculture and more forestation to help with offsetting the emissions and helping adapt to climate change. Or we develop more solutions of trying to enable more of these farms to basically operate and grow food that has higher resistance to these types of temperature and water limitations. And I think me personally, I'm always of the stature that we should do it in ways using what the earth has given us. So biological capabilities, I I'm just not someone that would advocate for genetically modified resources first, before trying things that are plant sourced or biologically derived.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Mmm okay. And so that's amazing. Are there any other particular innovations in the industry, either in your company or other companies that you see that are coming through that you're particularly excited about?

Tinia Pina:

I think what's interesting that I've only recently encountered was, there are some technologies that are using spatial vision and AI and augmented, uh, uh, I guess big vision, I guess, to, to measure the crops as well as crops that have been harvested and are now in route for distribution, to see how much longer their shelf life is. And so if you can, and this is more of a preventative tactic, but if you can help to basically get that produce, either out to markets sooner or find a secondary market, so that consumers that realise they'd be willing to pay for something that's about to become perishable sooner, then we're reducing how much food is actually about to go to waste. That's certainly an interesting solution there and we're software is certainly involved, but I I've read that recently and, and, and that that's exciting to me personally.

Alex Mospanyuk:

I absolutely agree. Using tech within agriculture is probably one of the coolest things that have come about in the last decade or so. And so what is maybe something that you wish you would've known when you began your career?

Tinia Pina:

So with Re-Nuble, I think I've hit every kind of challenge, which is why it took this long to bootstrap, but agriculture is not for the faint of heart. You need time to realize that some investors try to, even though it's AgTech, they try to measure the progress of a AgTech company with a SaaS or a software as a service based company. Very different, so I wish I would have realised this sooner, and we've become better at that, and then the second thing is manufacturing. So manufacturing is also not for the faint of heart. And what I wished I would have learned sooner is how people, those that have a manufacturing company right here in the US, what was their kind of financing journey and how did they truly get started? Because, it's a very different journey than it is for a consumer product that you use contract manufacturers for and certainly for a software company, it's just, it's very different.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Yeah, right. And so as we come to a close, I just wanted to ask, what is the number one takeaway that you would want our listeners to absorb from this episode?

Tinia Pina:

I think for those that are listening with an entrepreneur hat on, is the sooner you can really get out and just like, talk about your company or your idea or your product in mind, the better it is, and I say that because that doesn't mean you should rush to start the company from day one. That just means that you're building a network and the relationships and also brand equity so that it just helps you in the longterm in terms of developing SEO and other types of assets that will help you from a marketing perspective. For those of us in the food waste space, like you and I. I would encourage here again, just to really think from a systems perspective, how there's more collaboration to either introduce each other to the right type of supply chain partners, perspective customers. Because if there's a fit. Let's say, for example, a software that's trying to reduce food waste at the restaurant level. We have a ton of restaurant relationships, we don't serve those relationships. We work with food waste that's more upstream or with, you know, at a larger scale and volume. But I try to connect those all the time that can provide a service to restaurants or post-consumer waste, cause that's something that we aren't focused on, right. And there's a lot of opportunity there. So, I think having more of a collaborative mindset, it will certainly allow for as a unified effort and energy to help with the food waste in the United States, we can move on that much more quickly with collaboration.

Alex Mospanyuk:

Amazing. All right, Tanya. Thank you so, so much for joining us today. This was so incredibly insightful and I can't wait for our audience to listen.

Tinia Pina:

Anytime. Alex, thank you so much for having us here.

Alex Mospanyuk:

You're very welcome. Well, that's all for today's episode of "Let's Talk Farm to Fork". Thanks for listening, and thank you Tinia Pina for joining me today. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast so that you never miss an episode, and don't forget to leave a review and share it with your friends until next time you've been listening to "Let's Talk Farm to Fork" a PostHarvest podcast.

Voiceover:

We appreciate you joining us for this episode of "Let's Talk Farm to Fork", be sure to rate, review and subscribe. Also, if you would like to learn more about how you can practically play your part in maximising fruit and vegetable supplies, whether you're a supplier, consumer, or anyone in between the farm to fork journey, visit PostHarvest.Com and try out their free online course library today.